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Wankhede pitch an insult

Throughout this series the Indian camp has talked endlessly about pitches. Indeed it has been disconcerting to hear the hosts say so much about the surfaces and so little about batting and bowling. Suddenly it appeared that the supposed challenger for a position at the top of the rankings could not win on its merits. India, it seemed, needed a combination of divine intervention and nefarious activity or it could not hope to beat Australia.

As a result of this weak-kneed thinking an appalling pitch was prepared for this Mumbai Test. Actually prepared is the wrong word because it is hard to imagine that any serious work was done before the match began. Had the curator cut a strip in the outfield it could hardly have played any worse. Indeed the net pitches were so much better that one smallish batsman from West Australia was taken aback by the contrast.

It is hard to avoid thinking that the wretchedness of the pitch was a deliberate ploy by officials desperate to secure a consolation victory. Fortunately the hosts were hoisted by their own petard. Of course it did not help their cause that rain fell upon the surface on the first day. Alas the pitch was not covered till the groundstaff had finished their tea. Accordingly, the Australians were able to take advantage of a track whose demons had been awoken.

Nevertheless the pitch at Wankhede is an insult to skilful cricketers and a betrayal of spectators who have spent their savings in the hope of watching a long and gripping contest between gifted sides. Nathan Hauritz's first few overs told the tale. Much to his credit, the young Queenslander bowled an entirely presentable spell. It was hardly his fault that the pitch transformed him into a latter-day Erapalli Prasanna. Hauritz is a promising young spinner but he could not have made the ball leap from a length or turn at right angles without considerable assistance from the thirsty and untreated patch of grass produced for this contest.

Nor was Mumbai the only ground to resort to jiggery-pokery in its attempt to please the lords and masters. Malis armed with scrubbing brushes let loose a cracked surface in Bangalore. Every attempt was made to persuade the ball to spin in Chennai. Only Nagpur ignored the pressures whereupon the erstwhile home captain complained bitterly about a lack of co-operation.

Test matches bring together the finest cricketers around and pit them against each other in intense sporting conflict. Curators and their superiors must provide conditions in which talent can be expressed. No one expects every pitch to be the same everywhere. No one sensible expects home advantage to be sacrificed. On the other hand, the deliberate production of rotten surfaces favouring the home side must be condemned.

Unsurprisingly, the Indian batsmen were as dismayed by the pitch as their opponents. During the course of his defiant effort, Rahul Dravid often glared at the surface in the manner of a headmaster at an especially offensive pupil. Nor was Sachin Tendulkar impressed. Both men have been short of form and the last thing they wanted to encounter was another dubious surface. Some will find sport in the sight of fine batsmen struggling to survive on pitch from which the ball jumped like fat from the frying pan. Had it been the fifth day of the match even this former batsman might have appreciated the contest between bat and turning ball. Mumbai has produced a pitch upon which the ball turned sharply from the very start. Batting was turned into a lottery. Of course the match will last three full days. Whatever the result, it will not have been a satisfactory contest. Perhaps India has abandoned hope of conquering the world and has returned to its old habit of regarding home victories as enough to attain peace of mind.

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